We look at how US political news is shared and engaged with on Facebook.
At NewsWhip, we’ve been tracking the performance of sites of all kinds for the last few years. That’s why we were keenly followed news last week around conservative news sites and Facebook’s Trending Topics section.
Of course, the ‘Trending Topics’ bar isn’t the same as the news feed itself, where most of the engagement we record occurs. But the story raised some interesting broader points on engagement with political news on Facebook.
Regular NewsWhip blog readers will recognise that some of the biggest names in our monthly Facebook rankings are heavily political in subject matter. Of course, many of those names include mass appeal websites like BBC, the New York Times and Washington Post. In a recent analysis, we found that the Guardian’s Opinion section drove the most engagement for the site on Facebook, with many of the most popular stories political in nature.
However, we’ve also seen many lesser-known names attract enormous levels of engagement each month. In particular, many US digital natives, with low outputs and social-first strategies, can manage to attract hundreds of thousands (and frequently, millions) of Facebook engagements on their articles every month.
We took a closer look at the performance of some of the more niche sites, both left and right, on Facebook, to illustrate the large engagement rates that many achieve on a monthly basis on Facebook.
We’ve talked before about the ability to reach specific niche audiences on Facebook. US Conservative news sites are amongst the most obvious examples of this strategy.
These sites tap into a specific audiences with their content, and can reach vast audiences directly on their phones.
The leader is Fox News, which has been amongst the top four sites on Facebook in our monthly rankings for a long time. However, Fox News has an enormous online operation, with a multitude of local affiliates, attracting tens of millions of engagements on Facebook each month.
Other sites with a smaller output challenge for attention on Facebook by optimising their stories specifically for the news feed. But what’s particularly interesting is their average engagement rate. Compared to the more mass appeal publishers like CNN, NBC and the Huffington Post, these sites produce a much smaller volume of content.
Here’s what the average Facebook engagements for some of these sites (likes + shares + comments) looked like in April:
Some of the sites we’ve seen perform strongly with this type of content are Breitbart, the Federalist Papers, the Blaze and Western Journalism. While not all of these sites would be in the top 25 every month, their total engagements can frequently rival more mainstream sites.
On the other side of the political divide, we’ve seen sites like Think Progress and Mother Jones also perform strongly, with a comparatively low output. Here were the average engagement rates for five of these sites in April.
More recently, the likes of Vox.com has managed to get huge engagements in the news feed, frequently producing articles and videos that get tens (and even hundreds) of thousands of individual engagements.
Again, these stories are driven by politics, with the headlines in particular emphasis on key issues for their target audience.
Both sets of sites also manage to attract plenty of comments – in the case of Talking Points Memo, their comments for April (254,288) were well over double the number of shares (103,233).
For both, the numbers are high compared to the bigger operators. The New York Times’ average interaction rate for April was 1,669, and the BBC’s was 503.
Engagement Decline Not Restricted To Politics
As we told the Huffington Post last week, there has been a slight decline in engagement rates for many sites on Facebook in the past few months.
For many publishers, this will sound familiar. There has been a slight retrenchment in direction with engagement over the last few months, and this is evident from looking at all kinds of publishers, political or not.
The rise of native formats like Instant Articles and live video are increasingly taking up more and more space in the average news feed. This chart shows how the proportion of posts on the Huffington Post’s main Facebook page changes from last summer to the start of 2016:
Videos are getting higher levels of engagement, while links of stories directing readers back to websites have seen a steady decrease in engagement for many publishers. Many sites are reconsidering how they format their content for the news feed, with more video in their output.
Meanwhile, Facebook is encouraging its users to share more personal updates, and has announced some changes to the way that some posts are presented in the news feed.
Taken together, these changes point to increased competition for many sites looking to build engagement on Facebook. Because of this, picking out individual sites and looking at their engagement rates over a time period can give a somewhat distorted view of the overall picture.
Overall, politics remains one of the greatest drivers of engagement on Facebook. In an election year, it doesn’t look like that’s going to change.